September 11: Harry Thacker Burleigh; Composer, 1949

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About this commemoration

Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh was an American singer, composer and arranger who did more than anyone else up to his time to make available the musical and spiritual riches of the American Negro spiritual to vast audiences.

Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1866. His grandfather, Hamilton Waters, had been a slave who had been blinded by a savage beating, but passed along old songs by singing them to his grandson, Harry. Burleigh had a natural voice and sang when and where he could. In 1892, with some difficulty, he won admission to the National Conservatory of Music where he studied voice and music theory. Although never directly a pupil of Antonin Dvorak, the director of the Conservatory at the time, he worked for Dvorak copying orchestral parts. It was Burleigh who suggested to Dvorak some of the themes that would become Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9: From the New World.

To support himself while at Conservatory, Burleigh became the baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City. The presence of a black man in the choir initially caused dissension, but it died down when J. Pierpont Morgan, a member of the parish, took a clear stand on the matter. Even after gaining other employment and becoming a successful composer, Burleigh continued to sing in the choir at St. George’s for many years and became a beloved part of the congregation.

Burleigh composed original music, mostly for voice, and was a well respected arranger and music editor in New York. His art songs were musical settings of the poetry of such great African American poets as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, among others. His greatest achievement, and that for which he will always be celebrated, was recovering and arranging many Negro spirituals for solo voice and piano so they could be widely heard on the concert stage. Various choral versions of the spirituals had been well known in the black churches, but it was Burleigh’s arrangements that made this distinctively American music available to the masses. Burleigh died on September 12, 1949.

COLLECTS

God our strong deliverer, whose Name is blest for the gifts of grace given to Harry Thacker Burleigh to gather and preserve the good heritage of African-American music and to lift up in song the struggles of his people: Let that Spirit of love which spurred him draw us also to join hands throughout the earth in Christ’s one great fellowship of love; through the same Jesus Christ, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

God our strong deliverer, we bless your Name for the gifts of grace given to Harry Thacker Burleigh to gather and preserve the good heritage of African-American music and to lift up in song the struggles of his people. Let that Spirit of love which spurred him draw us also to join hands throughout the earth in Christ’s one great fellowship of love; through the same Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Lessons

Isaiah 42:10–12                                                                                                                                                                                                           Romans 15:5–11                                                                                                                                                                                                          Luke 1:39–45

Psalm 103:1–5, 20–22

Preface of the Epiphany

Text From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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12 Responses to September 11: Harry Thacker Burleigh; Composer, 1949

  1. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    Obviously this commemoration is controversial. Is a significant black musician a “saint” because he sang in a church choir. I want to know more.

    If we keep him, the propers seem most appropriate, except for the gospel. I don’t see and I suspect many others won’t see the reason for the story of the Visitation is appropriate. If these is a connection is isn’t obvious.

  2. John LaVoe says:

    September 11: Harry Thacker Burleigh; Composer, 1949
    .
    I nodded in complete agreement on reading Leonel Mitchell’s rhetorical question, “Is a significant black musician a “saint” because he sang in a church choir.” But, upon reading the commemoration I agree even more with the other half of his comment, i.e., “I want to know more.”
    .
    Singing in a choir to support oneself obviously doesn’t do it; God’s grace and purpose working in creation in history is what does it, and from a theological perspective Holy Baptism, and a life that follows through “with God’s help” at keeping the Baptismal Covenant, is what we know and see in this regard. We can assume from what is printed that Burleigh had a voice as well as other outstanding gifts, and made significant contributions in the musical field, but did he have a living faith, and was it the Christian faith? That’s what we need added, to know if this commemoration belongs here.
    .
    We may well have here (supplemented by some relevant “fill”) a commemoration we need very much, namely, what it is to be a person who for the most part is not a martyr in any sense , nor a celebrity, political powerhouse, or ecclesiastical “star” of any ilk, but purely a Baptized Christian who puts his faith in the Lord and follows through on the Baptismal Covenant as he lives his otherwise somewhat generic life doing his somewhat generic job with peculiar gifts and opportunities, challenges and failings. Yet those details are exactly the pieces we’re not told here. (It’s possible his grandfather is the one who really deserves the commemoration, since he’s the one who gave Harry what he ultimately worked out!)
    .
    ABOUT THE COLLECT: While I like the thoughts in the collect, something “un-simplifies” its flow. Some suggestions might be:
    1) “Gifts of grace” is redundant. Either “gifts” or “grace” will do.
    2) “who gathered and preserved…and lifted up in song…” (rather than “to gather and preserve…and to lift up in song…”)
    3) The phrase “his people” (as if non-blacks don’t have those struggles) might also be put, “your people” (addressed to God).
    4) Is, “that Spirit of love” over-romanticized, or even explicitly present in the bio? Instead, (omitting “of love”) “Let your Spirit” might suffice. In fact, that whole sentence expresses something important about reconciliation to be sure, but the picture it conjures up in my mind reminds me of an old Pepsi Cola commercial. It can be said better for a prayer.
    5) My spell check says “for ever” is a single word.
    .
    COLLECT: (UNCHANGED WORDING FROM HWHM): God our strong deliverer, we bless your Name for the gifts of grace given to Harry Thacker Burleigh to gather and preserve the good heritage of African-American music and to lift up in song the struggles of his people. Let that Spirit of love which spurred him draw us also to join hands throughout the earth in Christ’s one great fellowship of love; through the same Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

    COLLECT: (CHANGED, USING SUGGESTIONS ABOVE): God[,] our strong deliverer, we bless your Name for [the grace] given to Harry Thacker Burleigh, [who gathered and preserved the goodly] heritage of African-American music, and [who lifted up] in song the struggles of [your] people. Let your [Holy] Spirit[,] which spurred him[,] draw us also to [sing out our innermost struggles, as we embrace our heritage and affirm our solidarity with you and with peoples everywhere] in Christ’s one great fellowship [and kingdom]; through the same Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

  3. John LaVoe says:

    Might it be a good idea to keep 9-11 otherwise untaken, since so much in our national psyche now involves obersvances of various sorts?

  4. Suzanne Sauter says:

    I wish to concur with what John LaVoe says about September 11. At least for the next 50 years, please leave this date open.

    One more comment. Harry T. Burleigh does have one adaptation and harmonization in the Hymnal 1982. That is hymn 529: In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South of North.

  5. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    Do any of Burleigh’s arrangements appear in LEVAS? And I concur about Sept 11. It may be a good day to pray for peace and understanding.

  6. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    Oops/ Off topisc – mu email is gilliaca@jmu.edu NOT .ed.
    Can this be fixed?
    Thanks

  7. Nigel Renton says:

    The SCLM recently abandoned the old rule “from Massey Shepherd’s time” of one day, one commemoration. Are there guidelines? For example, presumably we are not going to share Major Feast Days. But the preferred date is the date that a person joined the Church Triumphant. So what is the logic of celebrating Burleigh on this day, rather than having him share the date with John Henry Hobart?

    I would add the words “and Arranger” to the subheading of the Propers

    Repetition of the word “spiritual” in the first paragraph seems clumsy. I suggest deleting “and spiritual” in the third line of the first paragraph.

    Don’t almost all of us have “natural voices”? Line 4 of the second paragraph might be more precise by the addition of “singing” after “natural”, or by adding ” for singing” after “voice”.

    In line 7 of the fourth paragraph, adding “that” after “so” would improve the clause.

  8. Michael Hartney says:

    Bio: 4th paragraph: ‘… and music editor in New York City.’ He lived and worked in the City.

    Again, ‘African American’ is used when in the preceding commemoration for Alexander Crummell it was Afro-American.

    In response to the question posed above, Burleigh made ‘In Christ there is no East or West’ a hymn tune. He named it McKee after the then Rector of Saint George’s New York City, where Burleigh sang.

    He was the first Black soloist/chorister to be accepted in The Episcopal Church, virtually. Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Erie, Pennsylvania, has a stained glass window in his honor.

    He broke a significant race barrier of The Episcopal Church – for that he needs to be remembered.

  9. Michael Hartney says:

    Burleigh was initially buried in White Plains, New York, and was reinterred in his native Erie, Pennsylvania, on May 28, 1994. His gravestone notes re: the reinterment: “Steal away, steal away home’ quoting one of Burleigh’s beloved spirituals.

  10. Celinda Scott says:

    Thanks to Nigel and Michael for their comments, which make it clear Burleigh is not being commemorated simply for being a good Christian who sang in a choir (important as those things are): as the commemoration states right at the beginning, he made the Negro spiritual available to many. I grew up singing the hymns mentioned in the comments above (“Steal Away..,” “In Christ there is no east or west….” and they helped shape my deepest beliefs. I agree with Luther that hymns are a major part of Christian education and am glad several hymn writers are included in HWHM. PLEASE do not leave him off the commemoration list. I think the SCLM was right to drop Massey Shepherd’s advice about “one day, one commemoration” when necessary –no way around it, I think, with all the additions to HWHM.

  11. Steve Lusk says:

    He was perhaps the first black musician hired by a white Episcopal church — I assume the black churches had their own music ministers from the beginning. Note what Wikipedia says (lest we get too triumphalist about when the color line was broken in our communion): “There was opposition to hiring Burleigh at the all-white church from some parishioners, because of his race, at a time when other white New York Episcopal churches were forbidding black people to worship. J. P. Morgan, a member of St. George’s at that time, cast the deciding vote to hire Burleigh.” (I’m not nominating JP for a place in HWHM, although this one act may come close to qualifying . . . and might deserve a mention in write-up for Burleigh.)

  12. Pingback: September 11 – Harry Thacker Burleigh : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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